Boise, ID. One mantra of those who favor abortion rights is “My Body, My Choice.” As the team at Choice42 winsomely argue, a more appropriate catchphrase would be “Our Bodies, My Choice.” Abortion is often about a stronger body unwilling to be inconvenienced by a smaller, weaker one. The pro-life movement, however, has traditionally been about expanding the circle of care—even legally mandated care—to the vulnerable. That is why I have been perplexed to see a sizable slice of the pro-life movement embrace anti-mask rhetoric.

Here in Boise, a crowd of 150 or so recently gathered on the steps of the Idaho State Capitol to protest the pandemic response. Videos of the event prominently featuring children burning face masks have, pardon the pun, gone viral, even garnering international coverage. I first learned about the then-upcoming event from a fellow participant at a pro-life prayer vigil outside of a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic. Soon thereafter, I attended a screening of the worthwhile film Gosnell. Masks were available but overwhelmingly shunned. The venue was spacious and the crowd relatively small; nevertheless, the fact that those gathered would take to the streets to encourage reluctant mothers to embrace the sizable inconvenience of pregnancy, while not taking on the minor inconvenience of a mask for the sake of one another seemed dissonant.

Certainly, there are some costs associated with masks. Most of us miss seeing smiles and laughing heartily in public without concern. Thankfully, a bit like pregnancy, this discomfort is but for a season, and the season will be shorter the more links in the potential transmission chain we can break before new virus variants emerge.

Of course, unlike pregnancy, the dependency of another human life on our actions is not as direct nor as outwardly visible. Even so, the analogy of pregnancy to public health measures is still sound. The focus of the pro-life movement has never been about making a woman bear her responsibilities alone. Instead, much energy has gone to building webs of support for babies, mothers, and fathers. To the woman facing a crisis pregnancy, most pro-lifers do not shout “It’s all on you, and one day we will use the courts to make you do what you should!” Rather the message has been “We believe unborn babies should be protected by law, but we as a community are here to help.” Recent cries of oppression-by-mask run counter to these communal sentiments.

As Paul exhorted the Galatians, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” One of the central, if shocking, teachings of Jesus was that when an authoritarian government unjustly requires an onerous burden, his followers should respond by going an extra mile. And a mask is by no means the equivalent of a Roman soldier’s pack.

In his masterpiece The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard highlights “the primacy of anger in the order of evil” as the opening theme in the Sermon on the Mount. Today, there are legitimate questions in the air about public spending in the trillions, lockdowns, school closures, vaccines, and more. Unfortunately, much of what is currently driving the discussion is not reason nor compassion but anger. Willard’s conclusion that “there is nothing that can be done with anger that cannot be done better without it” is very much a needed word for our moment.

In January of 2020, who would have thought that a simple mask would become a cultural fault line? Flawed exhortations early in the pandemic from Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Dr. Anthony Fauci to not wear masks certainly set the stage. It is also worth remembering that Tucker Carlson of Fox News was among those advocating for mask wearing. “Of course masks work! Everyone knows that. Dozens of research papers have proved it,” Carlson exclaimed in March of 2020. He also pointed to the central role masks played in the effective pandemic responses of South Korea and Japan. By October, however, Carlson was mocking masks as “holy amulets” of a cultist left.

I lived for three years in South Korea, a country where the culturally expected response to having a cold was wearing a mask to protect others. As reported by Johns Hopkins, Korea has only suffered 3.18 COVID deaths per 100,000 of its population. Other densely populated mask-wearing cultures such as Japan (6.52/100,000), Singapore (0.51/100,000), and Taiwan (0.04/100,000) show similar or superior results. By comparison, the United States has suffered 160.48 deaths per 100,000. Had the United States achieved South Korea’s success, our national death total would be around 10,500 rather than 525,000. Taiwan’s impressive rate would have meant only about 130 dead Americans so far. More than masks were involved, but many public health officials believe face coverings play an important role.

On the same day that masks were defiantly burned in Boise, the illustrated story of Agnes Boisvert was published by NPR. Boisvert is a nurse in Boise who struggles with the reality of COVID in the ICU and the anti-mask sentiment outside of it:

You can’t constantly see person after person after person becoming so oxygen hungry and just withering away in front of you—gasping for air—before you just, you lose a piece of yourself. And then we go out in the general public and people are like, “I can’t breathe with a mask on.” And, it is like—that is BS. Because I know what it looks like when you can’t breathe. And you are perfectly fine.

Those who value life should listen. I wear a mask because I am pro-life. Especially when on the sidewalk by Planned Parenthood, I do not want to give a pro-choice person the ability to easily dismiss me as a hypocrite. The past mistakes and overstatements from leaders and pundits alike were unfortunate and confusing, but they do not require conservative Christians to respond by just becoming one more cog in the rage and resentment machine that dominates public life today. I do not doubt that those who refuse to wear masks can still care about the unborn, but an embrace of hyper-individualism and bra (sorry, mask) burning run counter to the values that undergird the pro-life movement.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve been wearing a mask since the “experts” were saying not to. But I think criticizing someone’s faith because of their actions on wearing them is vile. It’s got nothing to do with it. But if so, I think Matthew 6:1-6 is probably applicable.

  2. Pro-abortion rhetoric often refers to the unborn child in terms of disease, thereby corrupting the natural process of pregnancy and childbirth into an illness to be “cured” by abortion. Treating healthy people as sick people is wrong.

    Pro-abortion rhetoric plays on fear of the unknown, fear of the tiny unborn child and the changes it might make to your life. We ought not fear one another.

    I am weary of being told that mask wearing is a “small thing” and if I “really loved” my neighbor I would not question it at all. It is not a small thing to destroy every normal social interaction within a community. And clearly that is the goal here – if it isn’t, then restaurants and schools and other places with demonstrably low transmission rates would be open without question. I am in a state where the absurdity of the government response knows no bounds and clearly has nothing to do with public health. I gave birth in the middle of the lockdown. Thank God I was not required to wear a mask while in labor but I know many women who were. Symptomless. Laboring. Mothers. Where is the justice there? Who does that benefit? It is naïve of you to assert at this point that any measure adopted “temporarily” will be any such thing.

    When people see the social structures that support normal family life falling down – being torn down – around them, ought they not respond with anger? Do we passively permit our businesses and churches and playdates to be Cancelled regardless of local conditions? If masks are the most obvious talisman of those doing the tearing down (and if you have been in public in a major metro area anytime in the last year you know that they are) then is it outrageous to reject them? You tout the good stats of various Asian nations, but perhaps you ought to consider other metrics – suicides, alienation, institutionalized childlessness, before you hold them up as our models.

  3. The challenge with this essay is that it underestimates, or overlooks, a deeper mechanism of control that is at play with respect to masks.

    Back on February 26th, 2020, the Surgeon General of the United States, Jerome Adams, wrote on Twitter: “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing the general public from catching Coronavirus, but if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

    How is it that such a statement was even intelligible in retrospect? The answer is quite simple: the evidence of the scientific tradition pre-SARS-COV-2 demonstrated that extensive and overly restrictive NPI’s had very minimal effects on the general populations. And not only was their effect limited, but the costs of doing them for an extended period of time was considered to be vastly too damaging, socially, politically, spiritually, and economically speaking.

    One of the most significant affirmations of this claim stems from a 2006 study on the effectiveness of mitigation measures for controlling an influenza pandemic (http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.552.1109&rep=rep1&type=pdf), which concluded with the following prophetic judgment: “Experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted” (Emphasis added).

    Universal mask wearing and social distancing have been increasingly normative in the U.S. since April/May 2020, with varying degrees of restrictiveness depending upon state and regional locations. If these mitigations protocols are effective to the extent that they are often portrayed, and are really aimed at reducing the number of people getting infected, then it seems that the restrictions have not been successful. The studies used to support the exaggerated impact of indefinite and more restrictive NPI’s are all based upon inconsistent and unreliable projections. The real world, on-the-ground data does not support any of these theories.

    Thus, if the scientific tradition on masks holds that mask effectiveness is statistically insignificant, then how does universal masking become a normative practice? Simple: the defense shifts from being concerned with the truth claim to being fundamentally an emotivst one. In other words, “I wear a mask because X” is ultimately grounded in an emotivist worldview, one that sees moral judgments as preferences (See Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, 11-12).

    There is an implicit problem in claiming that “wearing a mask is pro-life.” By connecting the pro-life position with wearing a mask, it unintentionally reduces the intellectual foundations of the pro-life arguments into emotional claims about personal preference. Once the truth claims about a non-pharmaceutical intervention are undermined or no longer referenced, emotivism is the logical progression.

    • Your comments, particularly the last two paragraphs, get at the root of what bothered me so much about this article, in a way that I could not quite articulate when I read it this morning. Thank you.

    • The real world, on-the-ground data does not support any of these theories.

      This claim, Brian, is, by any assessment of the relevant scientific data conducted with the slightest awareness of the processes by which the scientific method proceeds, completely false, as even a minimal Google search will quickly demonstrate:

      An Evidence Review of Face Masks Against COVID-19, a peer-reviewed summary from the National Academy of Sciences.

      Face Masks: What the Data Says, a review of studies from Nature.

      Community Use Of Face Masks And COVID-19: Evidence From A Natural Experiment Of State Mandates In The US, a peer-reviewed study published in Health Affairs.

      A half-dozen equally reputable studies and reviews could be added to this, to say nothing of summaries of such that have appeared in major media outlets, before you even leave the first page which your search engine supplies to you. Were the overwhelming bulk of these studies published subsequent to the February 20 Tweet from former Surgeon General Jerome Adams (a Tweet which he has long since recanted, saying that since February and March of 2020 “we learned more” and going so far as to call the mask-wearing “an instrument of freedom”)? Yes, they absolutely were–meaning that they are far more recent, and far more relevant, than the 2006 study about the spread of an entirely different pathogen than COVID-19 which you rely upon. That’s how science works: by testing and observation and learning, of which a huge amount has taken place over the past year. To paraphrase the ridiculously old (but still ridiculously true) saying, when the evidence changes, the responsible person changes their mind.

      I recognize that the odds of saying this actually changing your mind (or the mind of any of the other like-minded commenters here responding to Mr. Murdock’s wise reflections) is minuscule. Nor is my saying this intended to rebut your interesting and accurate observation that there is an emotivist element to mask wearing (though on the basis of what I have seen happen to health-care workers here in my very Republican state of Kansas, I would suggest that emotivism–“freedom!”–is equally, if not even more strongly, present on the anti-mask side as well). I just hope that anyone who happens to come by your comment on this essay can be made aware of how very shaky the ground your claim regarding COVID-19 and masks rests upon really is.

      • Hi Professor Fox,

        Thanks for your comment. I have no doubt that there are areas of my perspective on Covid that are lacking nuance or data, so I am grateful for people’s feedback and insights. Let me says a few things in response to your claims, and I will go right in order.

        First, universal masking became normative in April/May 2020. Thus, any claims that the public policy on universal masking was driven by data would not seem to hold. Peer-reviewed publications on mask efficacy for Covid were in the fall/winter of 2020. So, my general point would be that there was no reliable “masks are effective for Covid” data, simply because it was vastly too early in the pandemic.

        Along with the essays you posted, here is an article on masks that highlights the psychological element of universal masking: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2006372

        And here is an extensive randomized control trial done on mask-wearing and SARS-COV-2 that followed participants for a month: https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/M20-6817. What’s the conclusion of this study: wearing face masks when out in public does not meaningfully decrease the probability that the mask wearer will get covid-19. It’s possible that there is a small reduction in risk, but if there is, it is so small that it was undetectable in a study where almost 5,000 people were followed.

        Now, with all this being said, I want to briefly mention that it is likely that some reduction in spread is possible because of masks, especially when those who are very ill wear a mask. Some of the really insightful work in this area has been Dr. Monica Gandhi, a physician/researcher of infectious disease at UCSF.

        Second, there is a scientific tradition on masks as it relates to respiratory viral infections, which is perhaps summed well here: https://www.cfp.ca/content/66/7/509

        What does this systematic review conclude? Certain types of masks (N-95, and surgical) seem to have a greater level of protection, especially for health care workers. However, the efficacy of cloth masks for the general population would seem to have a rather limited effect for a respiratory viral infection, especially considering how infectious and transmissible Covid is. While you are right that Covid is not identical with other respiratory viruses, it is relatively the same with respect to how infectious it is. Thus, the general principles of this systemic review, and the 2006 essay I referenced in the firs comment, would certainly be applicable to Covid.

        Third, I want to say two things about your comment with respect to U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams. When he recanted, he said it was based upon the fact that he was referring to people who were asymptomatic. His position was that asymptomatic persons could not spread the virus. Thus, he changed his position because, supposedly, there was evidence that asymptomatic people could be significant spreaders of the virus. I would contend that asymptomatic spread is possible, but highly unlikely.

        Part two of this gets to your point about evidence: “when the evidence changes, the responsible person changes their mind.” Completely agreed. However, I would say that public policy with respect to Covid should be more akin to the following: “when there is no new evidence, the responsible person should make judgments upon what we already know.”

        Perhaps nobody has applied this principle better than Dr. John Ioannidis. Here is Ioannidis’ first piece, just as the pandemic was unfolding globally: https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/17/a-fiasco-in-the-making-as-the-coronavirus-pandemic-takes-hold-we-are-making-decisions-without-reliable-data/. His main argument was that public policy decisions were being rushed, and that there seem to be an effort to neglect the basic principles of medicine (do not harm) and infectious disease.

        I could say much more, but would defer to my other writings on Covid over at The American Conservative and Catholic World Report. I do not want to bore you hear.

        Let me draw this to a close. I am grateful for your comments. And I hope that the other articles I have written on this, and my extended response here, can hopefully assist readers in being made aware that my arguments are on a much firmer foundation than you suppose.

  4. It’s striking to me how strongly I disagree with your take (although at this point — a year into this thing – I’ve grown used to being surprised by my own opinions, and the strange bedfellows they create). I’ll admit it even makes me angry. I largely agree with Amanda. But I’m very glad to see an essay on masks here at FPR; thanks for writing this, John. And thanks especially for exhorting us not to become “one more cog in the rage and resentment machine.” I think this is a discussion that people like us, who might otherwise share a political sensibility, are going to have to take on, whether we like it or not, even at the risk of division. We’ll just have to do it as gracefully as we can.

  5. “The challenge with this essay is that it underestimates, or overlooks, a deeper mechanism of control that is at play with respect to masks.”

    This was evident to me fairly early on, and my tack has been the same since the end of the lockdowns: I wear a mask only where I am required to, and nowhere else. Wearing one out of “courtesy” in places where it’s not required simply plays into the “mechanism of control” that you describe.

    When I see people walking in the park with their masks on, driving in their cars alone with their masks on, jogging or walking their dogs by themselves with their masks on, it seems obvious to me that it’s a manifestation of either ignorance or puritanism, or both. Thus, either control by fear or control by conformity, neither of which I want any part of.

  6. I don’t know what the ‘pro-life’ movement is like where you are, but here in Texas it’s almost entirely about telling pregnant women that they’re whores who need to be controlled by a brutal patriarchy with occasion kinder men who tell women we’re too stupid to make our own decisions. The only ‘help’ available to pregnant women is scolding and maybe a package of diapers. They work very hard to make sure having a job after the baby is born is as miserable and expensive as possible and that every message women ever hear is that we’re worthless.

    Shorter: anti-maskers are absolutely perfect for a movement whose only real reason to exist is to enforce a vicious hierarchy of men over women.

    • Karen, I live in Texas. Part of the time in San Antonio and part of the time in Austin. I’m Catholic and part of the pro-life movement in the state. I’m sorry, but your description of the pro-life movement in Texas is nothing like my experience with pro-life Texans. In fact, a good friend of mine and her husband have adopted FOUR children since their three biological children have finished college and left home. Pro-life people in our state are compassionate and non-judgmental. They value all life as sacred. People who value the sanctity of human life naturally rebel against mask mandates. People know each other by our faces; we communicate partly by our facial expressions. Our unique faces are what separates us one from another as individuals to be recognized and respected as such. Universal masking removes our individuality and causes us to view each other as objects – objects to be feared in fact. Masks on every face are a constant warning to each other that we are merely germ factories and send the message that, instead of being connected by our humanity, we are to avoid each other to keep from making each other sick. It’s a lot easier for people who believe baby humans can be killed for convenience sake to apply that same utilitarian principle to grown humans they view as nothing more than disease vectors. So really the people we need to fear are those who want everyone forced to wear masks, as well as those who insist on wearing masks themselves – even when they are alone in their cars.

  7. This is a false comparison. Whereas, an abortion definitively ends a human life, wearing a mask does not definitively save a life. That claim, despite all the studies and data presented in its favor, is purely speculative. Even the author of this piece attempts to cite an example from South Korea, but then concludes that public health officials believe face coverings play an important role. “Believe?” “Important?” Those are not definitive terms. Health officials should “know.” Anyone can speculate.

    I live in NJ, a state that has had among the strictest protocols of any state, and was one of the earliest to impose restrictions. Yet, throughout the pandemic, NJ has been, and still is, among the highest in infections and deaths. One can easily conclude that if mask wearing does prevent the spread and does save lives then my state would be near the bottom of both of those lists. Why most thinking citizens aren’t coming to this same conclusion by now totally boggles my mind.

  8. I appreciate everyone taking time to weigh in on the topic. Here are a few thoughts that your comments prompt.

    (1) Humans often tend to substitute conclusions and indignation for reasoning and data.
    (2) Humans often tend to see things that are not there and ignore things that are present in order to conform to preconceived notions.
    (3) Humans are often frustrated by things outside of their control and compensate by focusing inordinately on the limited things within their control.
    (4) We have yet to bend the curve on whataboutism.

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